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The Daily Star - January 29, 2014

by Rami G. Khouri

It is fitting that Egyptian armed forces commander Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has decided to assume the presidency of his country, because two of the three main problems that Egypt faces are a consequence of his own decisions during the past year. The first is the massive schism in society between the Muslim Brotherhood that he banned and the rest of the country. There is also the continuing tradition of military control over civilian politics and national governance. (A third problem is the chronic issue of economic growth that is robust enough to create enough future jobs for the over 2 million Egyptians born every year.)Sisi has personally played a central role in these two arenas, so his smooth sideways slide into the presidential chair could give him the opportunity to address and resolve these massive constraints on Egypt’s development as a democratic, stable and prosperous country – should he have the desire and the ability to do so.

The troubling thing for Egyptians is not that they are about to elect a new soldier-president, but that they are about to elect a new soldier-president about whose policies, capabilities, democratic values, governance style and national plans they know virtually nothing.

Sisi should be aware of the fact that he is preparing to assume the presidency on the strength of the two greatest but most fickle passions that any political leader can count on to shape his or her incumbency – blind love and fierce fear – because the mass adoration he enjoys on the basis of these frenzies can disappear as quickly as it appeared. The combination of intense love for Sisi as the national savior and deep fear of the hapless Muslim Brotherhood due to its miserable and greedy yearlong performance in office means that Sisi’s strong mandate can last as long as any fleeting emotion lasts with a human being – perhaps months at best.

By summer, the three big problems that plague modern Egypt and the entire Arab region – chronic military governance, domestic secular-religious schisms and socioeconomic distress – will remain unresolved and likely could worsen. They will resurface and could damage and threaten Sisi, as they have all other Arab leaders since the 1970s, depending on how he uses the power at his disposal.

The situation and Sisi himself offer some assets that could be used to overcome some of these legitimate concerns and doubts, by drawing in particular on three strengths that he will bring into office with him.

First, he will assume the presidency with a strong popular mandate, but also a presidency that has been damaged by his own unceremonious ousting and jailing of the previous democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi, on the heels of significant popular protests against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi will have the same opportunity he has enjoyed since early July 2013, which is to rule Egypt with a free hand to implement almost any policies he deems appropriate, yet will also remain vulnerable to being ousted by the same popular forces that ousted his predecessor.

Second, he takes office after 18 months or so during which the Muslim Brotherhood won free and democratic elections for parliament and the presidency, and then proved to be both incompetent at governing and thuggish in their thirst for total political power. The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood should have the opportunity to assume office democratically is no longer a serious one in Egypt now, because they had that opportunity and failed miserably.

Yet Sisi must find a way to heal the rift with the Brotherhood. He must effectively rescind the ban on them so they can engage in democratic politics again in a new guise, stop the deeply contentious mass arrests and trials of political activists of all stripes who are charged with being or aiding terrorists and lower the level of violence in the streets between pro- and anti- Muslim Brotherhood citizens.

Third, Sisi enjoys the very strong support of several key constituencies, including much of the public, wealthy Arab state supporters in the Arabian Peninsula, many key foreign governments, and a majority of Arab citizens who still look to Egypt with awe and great expectations that it could move the Arab world into promising new pastures of statehood, citizenship, governance and national composure and dignity.

This soldier-president will be unlike any other in Egypt, because of the manner in which he assumes office and the continuing desire by Egyptians for a credible democratic transition from the old ways of security-state governing. Sisi will need to reveal in the coming weeks and months if he has the character, wisdom, courage and honesty to address Egypt’s enormous political problems and socioeconomic stresses. And he has to wind down the two important stressors that he himself has been contributed to – military rule of governance and the violent antagonism toward Islamist politics in society.

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